[1] Theodor W. Adorno: Der Essay als Form. In: Noten zur Literatur. Frankfurt am Main 1981, p. 9 and 10.

[2] ibid., p. 10.

[3] Max Bense: Über den Essay und seine Prosa. In: Merkur 1947/1, p. 418.

[4] Robert Atwan: Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay. in: River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, Vol. 14, No 1, 2012, p. 117.

[5] Adorno, Fn. 1, p. 21.

[6] R. Lane Kauffmann: The Skeweth Path: Essaying als Unmethodical Method. In: Essays on the Essay. Redefining the Genre, ed. by Alexander J. Butrym. London 1989, p. 235.

[7] Michel de Montaigne: Of Experience. 1575 Essays , Chapter XXI.

[8] Michael L. Hall: The emergence of the Essay and the Idea of Discovery. In: Essays on the Essay, see Ft. 6, p. 78.

[9] Henk Borgdorff: The Conflict of the Faculties. Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia. Leiden Univ. Press 2012, p. 72f.

Corina Caduff

Approaching the Essay as Artistic Research


Up to now the essay has rarely been mentioned in the context of the discourse of artistic research. But, in fact, the essay as well as the discourse about it is shaped by a number of topoi which are very similar to the ones that are prevalent in discussions about artistic research: The essay combines modes of narrative and reflection, it occupies a contentious space in between academia and artistic practice, and its definition proves to be a constant point of controversy among its practitioners. The present contribution also contains an essay entitled “Showing the Dead”, which treats contemporary visual presentations of dead bodies on the Internet, in paintings, and in photography. A connecting third element is manifested by statements about how in my own essays, certain aspects like the State of the Art or work on the cultural archive become more concrete. The article as a whole can be understood as a plea for the reader to appreciate the essay as a method of artistic research.



The topic of artistic language is little discussed in the field of artistic research. Discussions about whether or not artistic research should have a written component highlight this omission. The different views range from explicit requirement – “artistic research (…) must include (apart from everything else) a linguistic part”  – to decided rejection: ”The results of artistic research are artworks, not texts.”  And yet, the possibility that a text can also be a literary text is not taken into account by either position. Why is that? Why do literary texts and creative writing figure so little in the discourse of artistic research?

The reasons for this are primarily institutional. Creative Writing courses emerged in American universities in the post-war period while the Eastern bloc was a literary talent hotbed for socialist literature, some of which persisted even after the caesura of 1989 (such as the famous Gorky Institute in Moscow or the Institute of German Literature in Leipzig). Since the 1970s, academic Creative Writing courses have spread mainly in the UK and Scandinavia, and eventually also in Western Europe and on other continents; so far, German-speaking countries offer few training opportunities.

The subject ‘Creative Writing’ does provide a literary vocational training, which can be regarded as being analogous to courses in photography, film, painting, music, theatre etc., yet it is mostly university-based in the field of literature and cultural studies – in the U.S. and the UK it is traditionally part of the English Department. Only in exceptional cases it is offered at art schools or universities of the arts (such as the Master of Literary Composition at the University of Gothenburg, or the Bachelor “Literary Writing” at the Bern University of the Arts).

With this article I want to advocate the inclusion of literary research procedures in the discussion of artistic research. I suggest using the genre essay as an example since discourse about the essay exhibits obvious analogies to the discussion about artistic research. One example is the hybrid existence between academia and art as an ongoing issue: is the essay art, or is it science? Is it theory, or is it practice? To what extent is it reflective, and to what extent is it narrative? What insights does it generate that can be provided neither by literature nor by literary studies, and why is it hardly acknowledged by academia? These questions [[Procedure/Method]] shape the research on essays, and they correspond with the fundamental questions which are the motor of the discourse about artistic research.

In fact, the essayist belongs neither in the literary scene, nor in the field of literary studies, and similar to the Artistic Researcher, the term ‘essayist’ hardly gets widespread recognition as a professional title. It is therefore advisable to refer to oneself with the more general term ‘writer’ because, as in the case of artistic research, the essay is, despite ongoing efforts, not equipped with an explicit explanation: the various essay forms are too diverse, and too vague its definition as a genre.

The corresponding homelessness of the essay is generally linked with low prestige: “in Germany the essay is decried as a hybrid,” Adorno stated in the 1950s: “[It] provokes resistance because it is reminiscent of intellectual freedom,”[1] a statement which seems to still apply to the essay today, and in certain contexts a similar argument could be made about artistic research, despite its career in recent years.

Artistic research focuses on an art-based methodology of research, which is not tied to specific contents or disciplines – likewise the essay may generally treat any topic. Like artistic research, it doesn’t bother to present the current state of research (State of the Art), it doesn’t lose time substantiating its subject, or, to put it in Adorno’s words: “It does not begin with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to discuss.”[2] [[State of the Art]] It doesn’t work itself through a number of terms and definitions, and in accordance with artistic research it is not characterised by fixed conceptual definitions, but rather it explores the character of terms by striding through them both sensuously and concretely. By doing so it is again consistent with artistic research, based on a comprehensible question or a clear topic. Working on an essay does not oblige a specific systematic approach; rather, it possesses the freedom to connect different phenomena, as disparate as they appear to be, and to let the connection, pertaining to the original question, become productive.

As in the case of artistic research, the explorative-experimental method of the essay is thereby evoked repeatedly in different periods and language areas: In the 16th century, Montaigne pointed out the (self) experimenting method of the essay; in 1947, the German publicist Max Bense said: “The person who writes essayistically composes in an experimental manner”[3], and in 2012, the U.S. essay expert Robert Atwan offered the opinion that the essay is “experimental, experiential, exploratory”[4].

In addition, however, the essay, just as artistic research, is clearly given a value-added potential, which can only be put into effect in the intermediate area between research and art.

In order to understand the method of the essay, Adorno coined the phrase unmethodical method (“it proceeds, so to speak, methodically unmethodically”[5]), which has survived to the present day and brings ever new nuances, and which can also be applied to artistic research. According to Kauffmann, the essay is unmethodical inasmuch “as it draws on the unregulated faculties and energies of art,” and methodical inasmuch “as it bends to the more prosaic chores of humanistic knowledge.[6]” The key term of the method is the experience of the writing subject. Already Montaigne stated that he studied himself more than any subject[7], and to date such a self-reference is regarded as an empirical quality which constitutes the character of the essay: “it applies to inward journeys of self-discovery as well as to the venture of outward-bound exploration.”[8]

Therein precisely lies the potential of the essay: the empirical experience of the author is recognised as an object of investigation – in contrast to the academic pursuit of knowledge, but in analogy with artistic research. However, a further specification of the term “self-discovery” should have to be achieved, because in fact self-reference in the context of artistic and research-based methods seems interesting only when the Self is seen as part of the cultural archive, and if it comes into play in the context of a particular question. The cultural archive the essayist works with consists of both already existing objects of investigation, which they combine at their sole discretion, and new empirical data, which they contribute. [[Material/Method]]

Both the history of the essay as well as the history of essay research are discontinuous and, in addition, their respective peaks differ in the various language and cultural areas; accordingly the Victorian era is considered to mark the peak of the Anglo-literary essay, whereas the 20th century essay gained increasing recognition especially in the context of different critical theory movements in Germany (the ideology-critical essay of the Frankfurt School theorists) and France (the French post-structuralist essay which stressed discourse).

The discourse about the essay is marked by topoi, which are largely similar to the topoi of the discourse on artistic research; the essay and artistic research are also comparable in terms of their common criticism of traditional approaches of knowledge generation. Furthermore, the essay questions the professional constitution of knowledge creation, as Henk Borgdorff pointed out in his book The Conflict of the Faculties. Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia with reference to artistic research:“Hence, the question is not ‘What is artistic research?’ but ‘What is academia?’”[9]

If we extend the field of artistic research to the essay and at the same time also generally include artistic research practices in fiction, it may, inter alia, add to a reconsideration and sharpening of questions concerning the role and the function of the text within artistic research.


Translated by Margret Smith

[[State of the Art]]

”The Essay does not begin with Adam and Eve“

The first sentence of my book Szenen des Todes is: “The temperature in the refrigerator is five degrees Celsius.” This refers to the refrigeration room of the Crematorium Nordheim in Zurich where the coffins of the deceased are stacked close together. I have neither written a preface nor given a historical outline about the subject of death and its present state of research. The book does not contain an isolated introductory chapter, nor does it offer an approach to the topic. The entry is immediate, prompt, without the detour of speaking. This, however, does not mean that the essayists don’t need to concern themselves with existing knowledge. On the contrary, dealing with such knowledge is, as in science, indispensable, but in contrast to the scientist, the essayists are free to determine the structure of the essay, they are free in their decision of when and if at all they will integrate it and in which way they will refer to it. In my view, the best essays are noticeably saturated with theory and history, yet without explicitly establishing the respective reference in a systematic way.



"Showing the Dead": Cultural Archive

In “Showing the Dead” I treat different objects of study that are of equal importance: pictures found on the Internet, photo books, paintings, secondary literature, my experiences in dealing with these materials as well as my experience with cremations in Varanasi and Kathmandu. With the text I thus create a cultural archive, whose subjects I do not only arrange at my own discretion, but which I shape narratively as I bring my experiences into play. Being delivered from academic methodology, I jump from treating the photographs of the dead Chiara to treating those of the dead Susan Sontag, up to the post-mortem photo I took in Kathmandu, all in an effort to link these different subjects of the archive to each other, to make them boost each other, and thereby to contribute to the release of latent forces embedded in the archive.


The relation of reflection and narrative

In the essay “Showing the Dead” I begin with the description of photos of stillborn babies on the Internet and then move on to further published pictures of dead. I eventually recount an experience I had in Kathmandu, where I photographed a dead person myself.

The essayist may, and should – in contrast to the (literary) researcher – speak of their own subjective experience, and, as a result, the essay always has narrative features, which are often written in the first person. In the volume of essays Szenen des Todes (2013) I recount how my parents and I visited their future gravesite, how I visited a crematorium, or how I took part in a Buddhist conscious dying course. When I am working with and on autobiographical material, a narrative is required in order to disclose and develop that very material. In contrast to the fictional narrative the essayistic narrative is always embedded in the context of a clearly defined question.

The hinges between narrative and reflection can be built in a variety of ways. In the example of “Showing the Dead”, my reflective discourse leads into a narrative discourse, which is no longer framed reflectively, and which finishes at the point at which I have come to an end.  

Corina Caduff

Showing the Dead[*]


On the Internet, there are galleries with photos of stillborn children. Hundreds of pictures of dead babies are presented in rows.

Like gravestones, these photos are inscribed with the names of the dead babies, their dates of birth and death the same. Most of the pictures show only the faces of the babies. The dead bodies are wrapped in soft white clothing, and they usually wear a wool cap. Often their faces are stained, discoloured, sometimes pocked with pustules and swellings, and their eyes are always closed.

The small dead lie in cradles or on a bed, usually alone. Often a teddy bear is lying next to them, and sometimes the photos are digitally modified, showing their place of rest as clouds.

One clicks through the pictures, almost not daring to breathe, frame by frame, sequential, silent, still.

The collections of these pictures of the dead leave you speechless, and they are speechless themselves, because in fact you can hardly form words about a dead new-born; one cannot talk about them, one cannot praise their character traits nor recount stations in their lives. One can only show them. The image is their only obituary.

The publication of photos of stillborn babies on the Internet may at first seem strange, but it certainly represents a medial place of mourning which is being claimed more and more often. Providing a photo of the dead child to the public obviously favours the parents’ process of recognising their child as dead, and thus also of embracing a self-conception of the mother or father of a dead child – and, being only one of many parents on the respective website, not being ashamed of it.

The photographs of the dead infants testify to something incomprehensible, something oppressively inexpressible, which the parents are willing to accept by showing their little dead children bravely, quietly, with the gesture of voluntary acceptance. A gesture created by the new media.

Post-mortem photography makes death real. It keeps it alive, makes us confront it, and, of course, serves as a reminder of the dead at the same time. If a child is stillborn, hospital staff often recommend taking pictures of the infant as a memento. 

It is only recently that photos of stillborn babies have been collectively archived and displayed. Taking pictures of dead adults, however, is as old as photography itself. It was certainly common in the 19th and early 20th century; post-mortem photography, today largely forgotten, was at that time an accepted photographic genre. Its precursors were the ancient death masks, as well as painted memorial portraits which first began in the Renaissance: first only religious dignitaries and the nobility were captured, and later commoners also adopted the practise. The genre of memorial portraiture reached its peak simultaneously with post-mortem photography in the 19th century.  However, improved hygiene regulations led to a ban of post-mortem photography in the cities at the end of the 19th century due to the risk of infection. Additionally, increasing industrialisation of funeral services removed death progressively from sight, leading to the disappearance of those genres.

Today we prefer to remember the dead with photographs of the deceased while still alive. The virtual cemetery culture on the Internet in particular denies the dead body; here, post-mortem photography seems to be a taboo – with the exception of just those cases where there is no other option; with the exception of photos of the stillborn.




In the spring of 2009, a book with over 50 large format photographs of a dying and, later, dead child appeared: Chiara – Eine Reise ins Licht (A Journey into the Light). The photographs were taken by the Swiss artist and photographer Elisabeth Zahnd Legnazzi (*1957). Chiara was her daughter.

In November 1999 the five-year-old girl was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The tumour was inoperable, and radiation was not possible; the chemotherapy sessions were unsuccessful. As Chiara’s condition deteriorated in April 2000, the parents moved with her to the Ita Wegman Clinic in Arlesheim, where Chiara died in September 2000. During that period her mother took more than 400 portraits of her. Those she selected to place in the publication that appeared nine years later directly confront us with the girl’s process of dying. They show Chiara lying in bed, a bed of pillows and blankets. All photographs are kept in soft pastel colours, which give an impression of mildness. Chiara’s mouth is open; from image to image her face becomes whiter, more transparent, more ethereal, more spherical. One seems to be able to see her life fading. “The fact that the images are getting lighter reflects how I perceived Chiara’s process of dying,” says Zahnd Legnazzi.[1] Sometimes soft toys and flowers can be seen in the pictures, but Chiara seems not to perceivethem. Rather perhaps they are a small consolation for the viewer – they show that the terminally ill child was not left alone.

I flip through the book repeatedly as if I were learning the photographs by heart. I am especially captured by Chiara’s gaze, because this gaze, it seems, is no longer of this world.

Often the girl’s eyes are closed, and when open, they are not looking at the photographer, nor at the camera, but past it to a non-definable place, apparently somewhere in the distance. In the preface of the book we are told that in the course of the disease Chiara became blind. So we are faced with a double uncertainty: seeking the glance of a blind person is always somewhat disturbing, because of the vague impression that they may still see a bit, and because they may perceive something quite different, something that the seeing have no access to. Tiresias, the great prophet of antiquity, was blind; the blind do not see nothing, but another reality. Because of Chiara’s deadly disease we are even more tempted to say her wavering gaze is already ‘there’.

Her gaze has departed though she is alive: Chiara does not see anymore that she is photographed and watched, and whoever looks at her does not see where she is.

The book Chiara radiates a great, reverent silence. That the dead body is not omitted is almost natural: “In the end it was just part of it to also portray her dead.”[2] Zahnd Legnazzi points out that breaking taboos about the process of dying was a particular concern for her when publishing the images.

One of the earliest historical pieces of evidence of a painter, who painted his own dead child in an attempt to understand its death, has been handed down by the artist/biographer Vasari. In his Vite (1550), Vasari recounts that the Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli (ca. 1445-1523) had his dead son be undressed and laid out, and “with the greatest firmness of soul, without shedding a tear, painted a portrait of him, so that whenever he desired, he could behold through the work of his own hands what nature had given him and adverse fortune had taken away.”[3] When artists are directly confronted with death, be it because someone in their immediate environment dies or they themselves become seriously ill, they do what they do best – use their camera or paint, write or compose. It is their way to deal with death, to touch it, to make it capable of depiction and communication. The artistic perception and articulation of death is therefore a means of coping with the mortification of survival, with the feeling of powerlessness, the helplessness of the spectator and of those who are left behind, and to deal with it actively and creatively.

Post-mortem pictures of adults, who have lived a narratable life, offer those who have known them or read about them the possibility to at least make a picture of their lives for themselves, and to see their death in this respect. With children, who have had so little life, it is more difficult, and with stillborn children it is quite impossible. Thus photographs of stillborn babies or Chiara appear more radical to us, because death itself comes to the fore, inevitably and seemingly inexcusable.

One of the most prominent examples from art history with regard to the depiction of death and dying are the many images of the dying Valentine Godé Darel. The mistress of Ferdinand Hodler was, since the beginning of their acquaintance in 1908, a model for the artist, who at that time was married in a second marriage with Berthe Jacques. When she developed cancer a few years later, the artist captured her illness and process of dying (1914/15) for many months in approximately seventy portrait studies and portraits, and even her corpse served as a model for various studies.[4]

A similar example are the photos of the sick and dead Susan Sontag (1933-2004), published by the American star photographer Annie Leibovitz in 2006 in a volume entitled A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005. Leibovitz and Sontag met in 1988 and the two had been long-standing partners. Susan Sontag suffered from breast cancer in the 1970s, and, resulting from her experience, wrote the well-known essay Illness as a Metaphor (1978); in the 1990s she had to cope with cancer a second time. In March 2004 she was eventually diagnosed with a deadly form of leukemia, of which she died in December of the same year. The book shows many photos of Sontag taken in the course of 15 years, on trips taken together and with family and friends. The pictures of her illness and death are not left out – Susan Sontag naked in the bathtub in 1992, covering her operated breast with one hand; in the hospital bed during chemotherapy in 1998, on the bier in 2004. The post-mortem photographs are twenty small images in a soft, yellow-golden light, showing various sections of the dead body – the folded hands, the face, the upper body, the mouth, the shoes. Sontag wears an ankle-long dress by Fortuny which Leibovitz selected as a mortuary dress. On the skin of the exposed right forearm spots are visible.

David Rieff, the son of Susan Sontag, published a book in 2008 in which he describes the last months of his mother. To Annie Leibovitz he refers only twice, briefly, unfriendly, criticising her “carnival images of celebrity death” and even states, curt and without supporting reasoning, that his mother was “humiliated posthumously”.[5] These seem to be the words of a wounded son, who seeks to push away his mother’s lover.


The Dead for all

Should one be allowed to photograph the dead, and should one be allowed to make such photographs available to others? Who may take such pictures and who may not, who is to watch over the pictures of the dead?

Who owns the dead?

Today there are few examples in which post-mortem photographs do not – as carefully formulated as it may be – draw criticism, as voiced by David Rieff against Leibovitz in his book. The photographer Elisabeth Zahnd Legnazzi must also put up with the question if “as an artist she was profiting from the death of her child.”[6]

It is about dignity: it is important to retain the dignity of a personality, their integrity, even in the representation of their death. Annie Leibovitz has in turn given a simple definition of what constitutes the dignity of the photos taken during Susan Sontag’s illness as well as her post-mortem photographs: “The fact that it came out of a moment of grief gave the work dignity.”[7] Yet dignity is not a fixed term. It is always negotiable and subject to historical and cultural developments and changes. Not in all cases can the experienced pain guarantee dignity, and one could also consider if it isn’t possible to take dignified photos of the dying or the dead while not being personally involved through the bonds of family or love.

A dead infant cannot decide whether or not their image should be published on the Internet; similarly, Valentine Godé-Darel, Susan Sontag, and Chiara have not themselves allowed us to look at their dead faces. Instead parents and loved ones decide on their behalf; photographers like Leibovitz and Zahnd Legnazzi are among those who have made the decision, and who eventually confront us with their work to say: Look here. This “look here” is a call to a double recognition: it is the traditional sense of memento mori: we are forced to look the death of another in the eye and be reminded that sooner or later we have to face it, too. And it is an act of remembering the distinctive, individual dead person.

Are you now searching for the photographs of stillborn babies on the net, or do you want to see pictures of Susan Sontag? If someone feels a certain desire to see post-mortem photographs, it should not be put on par with sensationalism, because our culture may have weaned us from the dead. Too strong piety can lead to displacement.



My Post-Mortem Photograph in Kathmandu

In Hinduism, the dead are traditionally burned in the open air while the cremation sites are shielded in different ways; sometimes it is also possible for strangers to watch.

Around the turn of the year 2007/2008, I travelled to northern India and Nepal. Although I had already been in India before I had until then never attended a cremation. On this trip, I had the visits of two cities, which are known for their cremations, on my program: Varanasi and Kathmandu. To be able to die in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, which is located at the Ganges, is for a Hindu considered lucky: who dies here, it is said, can break out of the cycle of rebirth. When devout Hindus sense their death is near they find, if possible, their way to this holy city.

On my first morning in Varanasi I get up very early. It is freezing and still pitch dark; with a group of other tourists I wander quietly through the dimly lit but already awakening old town where I’m confused about the many Swastikas that are painted on numerous doors as a bringer of luck, and I take a couple of photos of them. Upon our arrival at the banks of the river Ganges we board a boat to experience the famous river at sunrise. We ride out onto the river and in the light of the first rays of the sun we leisurely cruise along the shore where, after a short while, the first pyres appear. The dead are burned here around the clock, as if in shifts; the ashes are then handed over to the Ganges by the relatives. Signs onshore as well as the guide in our boat point out that photography is prohibited near this shore area. From the distance, you can see some pyres and also the relatives at the cremation site. Silently and slowly we go by. Varanasi exudes a religious austerity like no other Indian city. “If you want to look at a relaxed burning of the dead, you have to go to Kathmandu,” recommends our guide at the conclusion of our river trip, and a few days later in the Nepalese capital I find out what he meant by a "relaxed burning".

On the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu, right at the river Bagmati, one of the most important Shiva temples on the Indian subcontinent is located: the Pashupatinath Temple, whose foundation possibly dates back to the third Century B.C. On one bank of the temple site there are a number of pyres, to which one does not have direct access, but which are easily visible from the opposite shore since the width of the river is only about 15 meters. In contrast to Varanasi there is no prohibition from taking photographs, and tourists can film and take pictures to their heart’s content.

Around evening on my first day in Kathmandu I go to the temple site and take a walk in the wooded area, which is open to non-Hindu visitors. First, I deliberately stay away from the river with the cremation sites on the opposite shore, but I nevertheless keep looking at it from afar. Then I walk towards it just to change direction, only to turn around again and catch a clear view to the flames through the branches of the trees. I eventually get to the river, where I mingle with other tourists and, like them, I now look directly across it. A cremation seems to be well underway. Male relatives of the deceased perform their ablutions in the cold, dirty river (the women stay at home), while behind them the funeral pyre is burning; I cannot detect a corpse in the flames. In contrast to Varanasi no reverent silence prevails here, we speak in a normal volume, dogs are barking and children call around as usual. And of course, it hardly takes a minute until a young handsome Nepali offers himself as a guide. “I’ll explain the rituals for you,” he says, and I am unusually willing and nod immediately and listen to him with interest as he comments on the ablutions and other chores, and when he explains to me the respective cremation sites of the different castes. “Take a picture, take a picture,” he says repeatedly. I shake my head and smile reluctantly. It is unthinkable to me. I find the unabashed filming and picture taking of the tourists crude and uncultured.

The men of the mourning family are squatting beside the fire in small groups. They also walk around, talk to each other and now and then look over to us in an apparently casual and friendly way. They seem almost relaxed, there is no bustle, no tears, and no excessively sad and serious faces. “The situation seems to be relaxed,” I questioningly turn to my friendly guide. “Oh, yes, yes,” he smiles back, “very relaxed.” After an ablution, a family member, in all probability the first-born son of the dead person, tries to put on the traditional white mourning garments, obviously having difficulties with wrapping and lacing it. He is being tangled up, is starting anew and smilingly shakes his head. The tourists enjoy themselves and my guide grins, “he is not familiar with tradition”. As I pay the guide he again reminds me to “take a picture before leaving,” pointing at the opposite shore.

Over the next few days in Kathmandu, I return to this place every late afternoon. In these days I never see the beginning of a cremation, do not see how the body is brought and laid out, I do not see how the pyre is lit. But eventually I sit, and soon I become less curious and rather simply present. Almost immediately I feel comfortable here. I just seat myself there, look across to the opposite shore, watch tourists and am amused by the sadhus, who solemnly sit here on the ground with their metre-long braids and are photographed for money. I photograph neither them nor the happenings on the other side. I wave away approaching guides.

A trip into the backcountry of Nepal interrupts these visits. A few days later, I return to Kathmandu where I can spend another afternoon before flying back. Again, I go to the Pashupatinath Temple. This time I see a couple of young men preparing a cremation site in the area allocated to a lower caste:  they carry wood, layer it row by row, and finally bring the body of an old man wrapped in white cloth and an overlying yellow blanket. They place him on the prepared woodpile. His face is exposed. Someone puts a piece of wood under his neck so that the upper body is slightly raised. All this takes place very slowly, step by step. Meanwhile the men circle the laid out body, then again they stand around, sometimes in silence, sometimes talking. Eventually someone puts a piece of wood in the dead’s mouth. A little later he lights it. And I will never forget the image that followed: an orange flame shoots out of the mouth, like a word bubble, a speech of fire, toward heaven, a picture of a mystical force such as I have almost never seen.

Without hesitation, I take out my small digital camera and press the shutter button once, twice, three times. For the first time in my life, I photograph a dead man.

Shortly thereafter, when the mouth is blackened, the men place another pile of wood on the legs of the corpse and cover the upper body and face with straw so that you cannot see the body anymore. I remain seated, continue to look, eat a pita bread and leaf through a guidebook. After an hour, the cremation still continuing, I get up and leave.


Translated by Renate Brown



*This is a slightly modified version of a chapter published in German in: Corina Caduff: Szenen des Todes. Basel 2013, pp. 51-66.

[1] Elisabeth Zahnd Legnazzi in conversation with Jürg Steiner, Berner Zeitung, June 6, 2009.

[2] Elisabeth Zahnd Legnazzi in conversation with Katrin Hafner, Tages-Anzeiger, May 6, 2009.

[3] Giorgio Vasari: Leben der ausgezeichnetsten Maler, Bildhauer und Baumeister, von Cimabue bis zum Jahre 1567, Vol 2. Tübingen 1839, p. 435.

[4] See Hodlers representations of Valentine Godé-Darel in: Ein Maler vor Liebe und Tod. Ferdinand Hodler und Valentine Godé-Darel. Ein Werkzyklus 1908-1915. By Jura Brüschweiler, Zürich 1976.

[5] David Rieff: Swimming in a Sea of Death. A Son’s Memoir. Ganta Books, London 2008.

[6] See Ft. 2.

[7] As cited in Janny Scott: From Annie Leibovitz: Life, and Death, Examined. The New York Times, Ocober 6, 2006.